Why Self Care Feels Selfish—And Why You Need To Do It Anyway

 On last week’s episode of the Woman Worriers podcast I talked about the practice of self-care and offered some small, simple ways to care for yourself. Even as I was writing up some notes for the recording, I was asking myself, “Am I the right person to tell others how they can better take care of themselves?”

Although today I’m much better at my own self-care, I didn’t always take great care of myself. There were times in my life that I drank too much, I wasn’t a very healthy eater and I was more concerned about taking care of others than paying attention to what I needed.

Our Past Can Shape Our Present Behaviors

woman on a road.jpg

When we’re stressed or anxious, we tend to fall back into old patterns of behaviors. Chances are, the old patterns are things we did for a very long time. Sometimes that means we forget or choose not to care for ourselves, even when we know it’s good for us.

We now know that when we practice new behaviors we can create new pathways in the brain. It’s called neuroplasticity. However, we can easily revert back to our old ways of doing things when we feel overwhelmed or triggered. Those old neural pathways are well established, like deep ruts in a road. When life makes us stressed or anxious, we can get stuck back in those old ways of doing —or not doing— things.

This past weekend I took some time away from work to spend with family. I noticed that I was really tired when I got home. I had planned to take a day off to do the usual weekend things that help me prepare for the week ahead, but, I filled that first day back home with business instead of using it to rest.  I was exhausted from travel but felt guilty when I thought about lying down, so I pushed myself until it was time for bed. Then —no surprise—it was hard for me to fall asleep! 

Why Self-Care Can Be So Hard

Does that scenario sound familiar to you? We have lots of reasons to put off taking care of ourselves. What I see so often in my psychotherapy practice is that the clients who have a hard time prioritizing self-care had caregivers who didn’t take care of themselves, or parents who were too strict or who didn’t enforce rules, boundaries and expectations for their kids.

We learn how to take care of our needs, create boundaries, and do things we don’t want to do from our parents. In her very informative blog on childhood emotional neglect, Dr. Jonice Webb writes :

“Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite.  We learn this skill from our parents. As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline:  how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.”

hand on face.jpg

So, if your parents didn’t teach you when to stop playing and get a drink of water, to have a snack or a meal, or to go to bed, it’s very hard to reinforce those self-care activities now that you’re an adult. Making those behaviors a habit takes conscious effort and reinforcement. Even then, when we’re stressed, we might fall back into old patterns.

Having a parent who is always spending their energy and time on others’ needs can also make it hard for us to prioritize our own needs as adults. If you had overly strict parents or parents with narcissistic tendencies, you might have been taught that having your own needs was selfish or self-centered. You might have been shamed or made to feel guilty when you tried to get your needs met, so you learned that caring for yourself shouldn’t be a priority. The shame and guilt you carry with you from childhood can also make you feel very anxious when you do try to meet your own needs in adulthood.

We Can Learn To Care For Ourselves

But we can make changes. We can choose to do things differently. It might feel really hard at first, because those old patterns of behavior get triggered and are very ingrained in us. But through mindful awareness, continued practice and reinforcement, we can learn to take good care of ourselves.

Mindful awareness in daily life helps bring a focused attention to the present moment and gives you some insight into how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors impact your body and your mind. For instance, if you take a moment a few times throughout the day to ask yourself what you need in that moment, you might find that your body is telling you it’s hungry or thirsty. You might find that you’re extremely stressed and you need to take a few slow deep breaths to calm yourself.

You might find that you know what you need but have come up with reasons for not taking care of yourself. Reflect on these moments with compassion. When you can listen to the part of you that believes that taking care of yourself isn’t important, and you recognize that self-care sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable, you can often recognize that those feelings and beliefs are rooted in your past. That’s a moment of mindful awareness. That’s the moment you can choose to do things differently.

If you live in the greater Annapolis, Maryland, area, consider joining one of my mindfulness groups for women. I’d love to have you be a part of our group!  You can find out more about the groups here.

You can also find more episodes of the Woman Worriers podcast here.


 If you enjoyed this blog post and would like more insights into living with anxiety, tune into the Woman Worriers podcast. In each weekly 30-minute episode, host Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, and her guests explore living with anxiety, relationships, parenting, surviving trauma and other topics and offer insights into mindfulness, meditation and other helpful resources.

Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md and she’s been featured in these major publications. Elizabeth helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual, online and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979 .